“Dead. That’s what Mary Jones is.”
I remember clearly the Basic Writing assignment in 1975 at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University where I was a freshman. We were to write an obituary and we were not to write it that way. That was a catchy lead, sure, but it was not the proper tone. And obits are never funny.
So we completed our obituary assignment from a sheet of facts, typing on manual typewriters in the basement of Fisk Hall where the instructor chain- smoked and drank about eight cups of coffee in a four-hour lab. Sometimes students stifled tears as they typed. Everyone turned in something at the end of the hour, along with the carbon copies.
Fast forward 34 years. I am an assistant professor at Medill, assigning obituaries to the freshmen in 201-1 Reporting and Writing, and not allowing them to create fiction by writing their own obituaries (a practice I find not only ghoulish but unethical) that was suprisnlgy on the syllabus before my arrival. Knowing how to write an obituary is solid practice in news judgment, sourcing, organization, as well as writing with the appropriate tone and voice. Good practice for profiles.
It seems obits are not only good practice for journalists, but good business for forward-thinking media innovators.
Two of my Medill colleagues, Owen Youngman and Rich Gordon, led a group of students in the Fall 09 Interative Innovation Project to recently redesign, rethink and relaunch the American obituary for legacy.com.
At the presentation last week students spoke about the immense popularity of “compelling stories about a noteworthy life,” separate from fame and celebrity. These were life capsules of “anyone’s neighbor, any average Joe.”
Everyman news? Of course. And these stories are not just a community or family service (no pun intended), but death notices are a 1/2 billion-dollar revenue maker for newspapers.
Add text, video, audio, photo slideshows and all combinations of multimedia memorials and this is the somber flipside to youtube’s jackass videos of teenagers jumping off their parents’ garages. Not that my three sons have done that. Yet.
An element I found especially interesting in the presentation was the fact that historically newspaper obituaries were limited to stories of society’s elite, and naturally, at first only elite white men. Few women were written about and honored in print obituaries. Another demographic piece is that an overwhelming majority of visitors to online memorial sites are Christian.
Now here is the opportunity.
We (me, too) spend a lot of time writing, teaching and talking about the democratization of news and the necessity for inclusiveness in media of all forms. Tell everyone’s story. Project all voices. So in the spirit of open sourcing, here is the chance to have storytelling without boundaries, with repsect for all religious and non-religious affiliations, to honor a life, any life, every life, everyman’s life, everywoman’s.
We all deserve a memorial, a story with dignity that honors who we were, what we contributed and how we were loved and known. And one that doesn’t begin with “Dead. That’s what…”